Three longtime ushers are happy to be back at the State Farm Center after a year-long hiatus. Our Anthony Zilis tells her story:
Ted Swanson, who has been an usher for 49 years, presents butterscotch candy to a UI officer during the Illinois basketball team’s exhibition game against Indiana of Pennsylvania at the State Farm Center. Anthony Zilis / The News-Gazette
At the beginning of the second half of the Illinois exhibition game against Indiana University of Pennsylvania on October 29, Ted Swanson snaked through the aisle between sections “A” and “B”. As he passed, he warned every usher, many of them new students at the University of Illinois, to get people out of the aisle and stay out of the coming time out.
In a few minutes a cheerleader will finally be walking down the aisle with a huge flag.
“Don’t be afraid to scream,” the 49-year-old job veteran tells a young usher.
After leaning over to speak to a UI officer about what was going to happen, he reached into his pocket, took out a Werther butterscotch, and handed it to him.
“To be around me you have to be cute,” he said with a smile.
This year it’s especially important to show other ushers and other arena staff the ropes. Last year, of course, they played in front of empty arenas. The ushers who were there before the year-long hiatus had to shake off some rust, and many of them had never done the job before.
Almost half a century ago Swanson was one of those young ushers.
In 1972, Swanson just wanted to see his friend, sniper Denny Graff from his hometown Gibson City, play at the state tournament.
“I was young and couldn’t afford a ticket,” he said, “so I had to find a way to watch him play. And I volunteered one weekend, came in and looked at high school basketball and the guy above me got paid and I was like, ‘Wonder how you get a job like that.’ I’ve been on the payroll ever since. “
After scoring 59 points in the Super Sectional and State Quarterfinals, The Gibson City Bomber came to Illinois. Swanson outlived him by 44 years and is still going strong.
Swanson was also an usher at Memorial Stadium. He quickly worked his way up the ladder and eventually became the head of the football usher due to a skill that is very important in college athletics.
“I was a good recruiter,” he says. “Back then, nobody was paid except whoever was recruiting (other ushers), and I was good at getting the kids out.”
During his time as an usher, Swanson has seen many achievements, including Lou Henson’s entire 21-year career as head coach, but he doesn’t choose a year as the most colorful.
“Everything is exciting when I’m around sports fans,” he said. “These guys need just as much support in the bad years as they do in the good years, but when they have (a difficult year) they work just as hard as the guys who are superstars. Some ball players are simply better than others. “
Aside from one hiatus every year when he travels to Florida to stay with his sister, Swanson still works consistently, and the die-hard Illinois fan who records every game to watch it non-stop took last year’s hiatus not friendly.
“When I had to see it on TV? It was for the birds, ”he said. “All I could do was sit at home and keep my nose clean.”
Linda Knox speaks on a walkie-talkie in the guest services booth during the Illinois basketball team’s exhibition game against Indiana of Pennsylvania. Anthony Zilis / The News-Gazette
From time to time Linda Knox hears the roar of the crowd from her seat in the guest services of the State Farm Center, just to the right of the west entrance of the arena. Or, if she is lucky, she hears the voice of speaker Brian Barnhart on the radio announcing a big play that is about to take place.
Then Knox knows she can leave her post, where she keeps multiple walkie-talkies, maps, and all the items people made the found items for a few seconds to throw her head into the arena
“Being inside and just hearing the roar of the crowd is just amazing,” said Knox.
Most of her time as an usher, Knox didn’t have to run out of an office to see what was happening in the square. During her favorite season, 1988-89, she stood on the ground watching the Flyin ‘Illinois team with one eye. For Knox, watching the game and keeping an eye on the crowd and other ushers was a science, which she was doing as the supervisor.
“I would show (the new ushers), ‘Okay, you can stand here and still watch, but you can still look around and watch the crowd,'” Knox said. “It was really exciting. I got really involved when I saw it and I thought, ‘I know I have to watch the people around me.'”
Knox began working in what was then Assembly Hall at the age of 16, taking tickets with her father, the co-founder of the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company, Leonard Doyle. When she was 18, the self-proclaimed “person” was promoted to supervisor who oversaw other ticket takers.
After years of working in the arena, Knox began filling the new Guest Services office in 2016 when the major renovation of the State Farm Center was completed. Knox enjoys the job of constantly seeing friends she met in the arena, many of whom knock on her window to say hello. She has grown fond of the EMS staff who occupy the other part of the guest service and she has photos of them on her wall along with photos of Garth Brooks and Elton John performing in the arena and an action shot of the former Illinois Deron Williams.
Last year, of course, was difficult for Knox after loving her evenings at the State Farm Center, though there was an advantage in not working.
“I liked watching the basketball games on TV,” she said. “Because when I’m in here, I can’t really see the basketball team. I can tell one of these (EMS) guys that I’ll take a break and watch the game for a few minutes and I’ll step in. That was nice, but not being able to interact was difficult. “
Tom Plackett, who oversees the ticketing gates at the State Farm Center, has worked in the arena for over three decades.
In general, Tom Plackett works on every single event at the State Farm Center, including basketball games and concerts for men and women. This includes nights when the snow falls in droves and ice forms on the roads despite having to drive from Paxton.
“In the past, I’ve heard from my superiors, ‘If you come here, I’ll fire you,'” said the longtime usher.
Over the course of his three decades at the State Farm Center, Plackett built his specialty working on the ticketing gates where he became a supervisor. Fortunately, he thinks he’s a patient person. After all, he was dealing with his fair share of excited customers.
“I’d say I usually please everyone,” said Plackett. “I try to help them and go to the ticket office with them. And usually between the two of us we can help them. “
Fortunately, Whitney Houston was also a patient person when she performed at what was then Assembly Hall in 1991. Back then, some ushers were also acting as arena security, and when Houston tried to get into her dressing room, Plackett wouldn’t let her in because he didn’t think it was her. Fortunately, Houston handled the situation with grace, and she even gave Plackett a salute on stage.
Aside from a few other interactions with stardom, Plackett generally experiences the excitement from the outside, and he likes it that way. He missed this opportunity last year when fans were not allowed to enter the arena and only a select few employees were working.
“I got the taste of being retired from here,” he said. “It was fun to watch, but it’s more exciting to be here … You get the excitement and you can live through the eyes of the customers. You hear how excited the fans are. It’s fun to hear them. “
Plackett and the rest of the State Farm Center staff naturally returned to the Illinois men’s basketball team’s exhibition opening game against St. Francis. With a lot of new hires, the learning curve has been steep, he said, but at the second game on October 29, Plackett said he was back on his feet.
“It was the mess the first night,” he said. “It was pretty much a reminder of what to do. Second game back, I remember everything. “